Mac DeMarco gallops triumphantly toward a picnic table in the artist compound near his trailer with a 24-pack of Heineken in hand. “Beers!” he declares, and a handful of sleepy but happy-looking friends crowd around to crack fresh ones. “I thought we were done when she said we had one of the weirdest riders she’d ever seen,” DeMarco laughs. He just finished convincing a production staffer that he’s a member of Parquet Courts and the beers were supposed to be on their rider.
Those kind of mischievous, playful antics line up with the atmosphere of the artist compound at Coachella nicely. It’s one of the many spaces on the festival grounds designated for attendees with special wristbands. It’s not an insane party though; more like a backyard barbecue for musicians who made major waves this past year.
A rose-crowned Jaden Smith lies on the grass with friends, while Mac Miller sets off to watch Tame Impala. Each performing band gets their own trailer, and white picket fences adorned with flowers and tall leafy hedges separate them into clusters. On the way to the bathroom, members of War on Drugs give the Cloud Nothings boys a nod in passing. Lil B chugs a bottle of water as Katy Perry poses for photos near a beautiful, private manmade lake off to the side of the compound. If you take all the glamor and celebrity out of it, it’s just a bunch of people passing through on the way to the next set, or downing a quick drink between performances.
Access at Coachella is a tiered system. Like the restricted zones at so many massive festivals, there are levels to it. The artist compound is like the cool kids’ table in the lunchroom: Everyone really wants to sit there, but once you get in, it’s pretty standard. The cool high school kids really are just eating lunch and the Coachella performers are pretty much taking advantage of the free beers, water, and clean bathrooms.
There are two VIP areas on the ground. For $799, in addition to the premiere parking pass that saves you a long-winding hike at the end of the night, you get a VIP wristband and access to both. The larger one is next to the Coachella stage, where Drake closed the fest both weekends, and artists like AC/DC, Jack White, Florence and the Machine, and the Weeknd performed. It’s stocked with two bars and is chock-full of food stands like Kogi—Los Angeles chef-du-jour Roy Choi’s now-iconic Korean taco truck—Free Range fried chicken, and Verve Coffee Roasters. It also features three sit-down options: Scratch Bar, Terrine, and Pot. If you’re feeling like a quick bite, Coachella stalwart Spicy Pie pizzeria is the easiest way to get something that hits the spot, and then stroll to the grassy area of the main VIP to watch the show.
The second VIP area is called the Rose Garden. It’s literal: Tall-standing rose bushes line big swatches of open green grass. While refined cuisine options like Eggslut and Sugarfish make this section a must-see for VIPs interested in Coachella’s ever-expanding culinary offerings, its cocktail options reign supreme. Caña Rum Bar was serving up small-batch rums while the team at Las Perlas garnished Mezcal cocktails with wild hibiscus flowers. It’s the ideal place to loosen up with a drink between watching Rae Sremmurd make an appearance during DJ Snake’s Sahara tent set before rolling straight into Porter Robinson, sufficiently relaxed.
For a midway drink between the Sahara tent and the main stage, which are located at opposite ends of the festivals, there are two options. The beer garden is an open space to lounge on the grass with a snack and a beverage. Or, for a change of pace with a cold beer in hand, the Heineken House is literally a cool option. With its own standalone structure in the middle of the grounds, there’s a giant bar at the back of the air-conditioned room, and an outdoor patio with misters, games and casual seating. Depending on the day, your beer stop comes complete with a live soundtrack by artists like A-Trak, DJ Vice, Jillionaire, Bunji Garlin, and Sir Mix-a-Lot. No special wristband required.
One of the only things it’s actually acceptable to complain about at Coachella is sore feet. The festival grounds are massive, and catching everyone you want to see means you have to hoof it across football fields. This is where one of the greatest perks of the artist wristband comes in. In addition to getting access to private walking paths that connect each of the backstage areas, there are golf carts running packs of people from one end of the grounds to the other. You line up backstage, and a friendly production crew member carts you to your destination, curving speed bumps and palm trees along the way. It’s a great vantage point to check out Twigs’ insane outfit as she strolls back from the Gobi tent and to witness girls cry at the sight of a Kardashian in the flesh. (Yes, this even happens backstage.)
Once you’ve arrived at your desired stage, the tiers come back into play. Artist wristbands usually mean the staff will let you stand side stage to watch shows early on in the day. This vantage point is ideal if you’re trying to get a close-up of dance moves or experience what it’s like for the performers looking out at thousands of people in the middle of the desert. Once the headliners come out, side stage usually gets shut down for anyone outside of the artist's immediate crew, celebrities and VIPs included. At each stage there’s a front-row guest viewing space. When someone like Drizzy takes the stage, it can get pretty packed from the jump. Even having an artist wristband at that point won’t do much unless you arrive early.
By the end of the night, the playing field is pretty level, and everyone’s ready to leave through the same exits at the same time. Hyped up on hearing Drake run through the hits live and laced with a healthy, beer-fuelled glow, GA attendees, VIPs, artists and their guests all roll out of the same exits with another Coachella day under their belts. As for the after parties? That’s a whole different wristband system: Enter at your own risk.